American stuck in Egypt for false-positive coronavirus test describes his struggle in military hospital

Matt Swider, an editor at Live Science sister site TechRadar, shared this image from the Egyptian hospital where he's been quarantined.
Matt Swider, an editor at Live Science sister site TechRadar, shared this image from the Egyptian hospital where he's been quarantined. (Image credit: Matt Swider/TechRadar)

What's it like to be quarantined in a country where you don't speak the language?

Matt Swider, managing editor of TechRadar (a Live Science sister site), has been detailing the experience online despite having limited internet access. Swider was on a cruise with friends along Egypt's Nile River when 12 crewmembers tested positive for the new coronavirus. Swider, who was shopping in the port of Luxor at the time and preparing to board a flight back to the United States, was recalled to the ship. There, 33 passengers, including Swider, tested positive for the virus and were led off the ship. From there, a military airplane shuttled them to a hospital near Alexandria.

"The hospital staff is friendly, especially as I’ve become a social media super star in Egypt with my positive tweets about the doctors," he told Live Science editor Jeanna Bryner by text message. "But like all countries around the world, the facilities are woefully underprepared and the language barrier makes it worse to ask for basic needs."

Swider was given a mask and a hospital bed, where he reported feeling exhausted but otherwise well with no unusual vital signs or other symptoms of the illness. Communication with hospital staff became an issue; at one point, Swider turned to Twitter for translation help when he ran out of toilet paper and couldn't figure out how to communicate the problem.

Even using the internet for help has been a challenge he said, with only spotty access through his cell phone in the hospital.

The language barrier has also created problems for his prospects of leaving Egypt.

"My medical evacuation provided by insurance asked for my hospital record number and lab reports," Swider said. "It’s not like there’s someone I can easily talk to in reception to get that through. And conveying a complex ask to someone who doesn’t speak fluent English is next to impossible when you’re having trouble asking for a towel and soap (we only have toilet paper and hand sanitizer) after six days of not showering. Asking for medical records is even harder."

Four days after he arrived in the hospital, according to The Washington Post, Swider and at least four others who had arrived at the center with him tested negative for the new coronavirus. He's since tested negative a total of three times. Hospital staff have repeatedly told him he'd be moved to a hotel soon for further quarantine away from other sick people, but so far it hasn't happened.

"I’ve heard I’m leaving for a hotel... in 30 minutes. And then an hour. And then tomorrow because 'the roads are unsafe' – read into that what you will. I’m still here at this very moment wondering when I’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

Swider, who has built up a significant Twitter following as he's described his situation, turned to the public for help securing his release.

"I [love] Egypt, the doctors & THE PEOPLE, but I miss my family & friends [crying emoji]. Please, Minister of Health, send me home. RT to let me go home! #SendMattSwiderHome," he posted on Twitter Wednesday (March 11).

Others, especially other technology journalists, took up the hashtag.

While Swider's situation remains uncertain, the passengers on the affected ship who did not initially test positive have had an easier time. Though many passengers and crew did, in fact, have the novel coronavirus, the country broke the cruise's 14-day quarantine after just four days, according to the Post. Many people aboard the ship were able to return to the U.S. without further testing or questions from U.S. health authorities, The Washington Post reported.

Meanwhile, the disease continues to spread rapidly within the U.S., with little testing available. To prevent overwhelming of the medical system, Americans should avoid crowds, large gatherings and close contact with others if at all possible; regularly wash their hands with soap for at least 20 seconds at a time; and call their doctors from home if they begin to experience symptoms.

Originally published on Live Science.

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Rafi Letzter
Staff Writer
Rafi joined Live Science in 2017. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of journalism. You can find his past science reporting at Inverse, Business Insider and Popular Science, and his past photojournalism on the Flash90 wire service and in the pages of The Courier Post of southern New Jersey.